On a recent January afternoon I began the long-avoided task of clearing out old files. Specifically, a four-drawer cabinet in the basement that has been the haphazard repository of a zillion pieces of paper for about a zillion years (ok, decades).
With a big laundry basket at my feet – our recycling containers were inadequate for the task – I perched on a small stepstool, and took a deep dive into the history of my adult life, circa 1971 – 2003.
The oldest thing I came across was an angry letter I wrote to God when I was nineteen. There had been a terrible car accident and my good friend’s fiancé had been killed. It was the first, but certainly not the last angry letter I’d write to God.
My first teacher contract was in one file. Third grade, Palmer Lake Elementary School in Brooklyn Center, 1976. Total compensation: $9,746.00. One of you do the math and figure out what that would be in 2021 dollars. Are we paying teachers better today?
In the same folder were several annual observation reviews by my principal. On the one dated just before our wedding he says, “Hurry up and marry Richard…”! Why would he say that? Was I, perhaps, a bit distracted? What did it mean that he actually put it in writing on an official document? I think these things were a bit more casual then.
I found every single one of our daughter’s report cards, from preschool through high school. They’re hers now. I think she could keep them for when she needs reminding of how brilliant she is! Seriously.
There were travel brochures and ticket stubs from long ago trips to the other side of the globe, teaching licenses of various vintages and instruction manuals for things that they don’t make anymore (portable cassette player, anyone?). I found receipts for furniture that had been given away long ago. And because I am a perpetual student, there were so, so many grade slips!
Speaking of grade slips, it soon became clear to me that there are many things I used to know, used to able to write about confidently, but have largely forgotten. I came across old blue book essay tests wherein I compared, at length, the child development theories of Freud, Skinner, Erickson and Badura. Seminary papers that were deep discussions of atonement theology, carefully foot-noted. (OK, I still want to remember these.)
From pre-Ordination ministry years, there were piles of handouts, teaching notes and highlighted articles, mostly about children, faith, and faithful parenting. Though the formats are outdated, the content is not. Doing right by kids, helping them grow faith, seeking to live compassionate lives together – these things are as critically important as they’ve always been.
When the day was over, I had three and a half drawers full of empty folders. (There was half a drawer of sermons; couldn’t quite part with that yet!) My husband carried the overflowing laundry basket upstairs and out to the recycling container; it was too heavy for me. I saved two or three slim folders to be stored elsewhere.
It turned out to be a good day. A really good day. I was reminded, over and over again, of what a curious, but blessed, career path I’ve followed. How much I loved being a teacher, a student, a children’s minister, a pastor.
It was a day to think about what matters and what doesn’t. Pieces of paper generally belong in the second category. The people, the connections, the learning, the experiences and joy. That’s what matters. And those things are stored someplace more permanent. They’re safely tucked away in my grateful heart.